The dispersion of blacks, Asians and Hispanics throughout the Washington area in the 1980s has reduced the proportion of overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, according to a Washington Post analysis of 1990 Census figures.

From the dockside villas of Annapolis to the new town houses in Loudoun County, however, substantial racial segregation persists, especially in the black inner city. And growing diversity often has brought tension, violence or white flight.

Overall, census figures show that blacks, whites and Asians are more evenly spread through the area than a decade ago. Hispanics, following the pattern of earlier immigrant groups, are more isolated in ethnic enclaves than in 1980.

Middle-income blacks settling in Prince George's County and new Asian and Hispanic immigrants seeking cheap apartments in Arlington and Langley Park have made the Washington area one of the nation's leaders in some categories of racial change. In others, the rate of change is more moderate.

Minorities made up most of the area's phenomenal population growth, an increase from 3.5 million in 1980 to 4 million in 1990 that was fueled by the area's economic boom. Overall, the Washington area is the seventh most racially diverse of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, measured by percentage of whites, according to University of Michigan demographer William Frey, a specialist on metropolitan areas.

The area's changing racial makeup has brought new understanding of other cultures, and new enmity.

"It's great for the children," said Deborah Levi, a white resident whose family lives in a north Potomac subdivision where the Asian population more than doubled during the decade. "They learn not to be afraid of people who are different from them."

But Pat Greaux, who is black, said the influx of foreign-speaking students has overwhelmed her daughter's Fairfax County elementary school. "Something needs to be done so that American kids are not slowed down," she said.

The changes are visible in everything from classrooms to grocery aisles. A shopping center in Arlington's Buckingham neighborhood that housed a barbecue place and a fish restaurant in 1980 now boasts a Hispanic video store and market. In middle-class Kettering in Prince George's County, many parents continue to oppose forced busing, but unlike a decade ago, many of them are black. Chinese parents in Montgomery County send their children to weekend cultural schools so they will not forget their roots.

The new diversity is not reflected in many neighborhoods, according to an analysis of census tracts, geographical units that roughly follow neighborhood boundaries and average about 5,000 people. Thousands of people still live in virtually one-race neighborhoods, on District blocks where a white face is rare, or in suburban communities such as Olde Severna Park in Anne Arundel County where blacks are seldom seen.

Demographers also caution that census tracts do not perfectly mirror neighborhood lines and could obscure block-by-block segregation. And in some neighborhoods, racial diversity has increased because whites are abandoning the area as minorities move in.

"On average . . . it looks pretty good in terms of how segregation has declined," said Billy Tidwell, director of research for the National Urban League. "Having said that, we're still left with a substantial problem."

The most dramatic measurements of the decade include:Prince George's County went from 38 to 51 percent black, the third-highest proportional increase in the nation among suburban counties. Fairfax County's gains ranked eighth among the nation's suburban counties for Asians; Arlington's gains ranked seventh for Hispanics. The one-race neighborhood is ebbing: Only 16 percent of non-Hispanic whites live in census tracts that are more than 90 percent white, the standard definition of an essentially all-white neighborhood. That compares with 35 percent a decade ago. Nearly a third of blacks live in tracts that are more than 90 percent black, down from 41 percent in 1980.

"In general, it looks like there's less extreme isolation of whites and of blacks," demographer Frey said.

In some localities, the decline was even sharper: In Fairfax County, where 44 percent of whites lived in tracts that were 90 percent white a decade ago, 8 percent did in 1990. In the District, the figure dropped from 20 percent in 1980 to 1 percent a decade later. Substantial separation persists, with many neighborhoods whiter or blacker than the overall population mix in the area. Most whites live in tracts that are more than 80 percent white, even though whites are only two-thirds of the area's population. Forty-five percent of blacks live in tracts that are at least 80 percent black. Whites went from a majority to a minority in 70 of the 895 census tracts that existed in 1980. More than half of them are in Prince George's County. In 10 tracts, whites became the majority, including fast-growing parts of outer Prince George's County and gentrifying sections of Capitol Hill and Old Town Alexandria.

Demographers and other specialists said the Washington area is far less segregated than some older Northeast and Midwest cities, but more segregated than some newer areas of the Sunbelt or the West. Tidwell, of the Urban League, said census figures show that segregation increased during the decade in Detroit, but that Washington changed less than Los Angeles, a newer city with less of the East Coast's locked-in residential patterns.

In the District, the most dramatic changes were increases in the Hispanic population across upper 16th Street, Adams-Morgan, Columbia Heights and Shaw in Northwest. Whites became a majority not only in parts of Capitol Hill, but northeast of Dupont Circle and in the downtown Franklin Square area. Minorities became the majority in the Northeast neighborhood surrounding Trinity College and a section of Southwest near the Southwest Freeway.

The sharpest racial transformations have taken place in an arc along the Beltway from Montgomery County through Prince George's. They include neighborhoods such as Kettering, where single-family houses start at $150,000, and its neighbor across Central Avenue, the golf-course subdivision of Lake Arbor, where houses cost $200,000 or more.

Kettering was majority white in 1970, 49 percent white in 1980 and only 17 percent white by the 1990 Census. Lake Arbor's census tract tripled in size because of new development, going from 58 percent white a decade ago to 30 percent white in 1990.

The traditional course of events in white-flight neighborhoods has poorer minorities moving into dwellings abandoned by whites. Now, Prince George's County leads the nation in another type, where the blacks who moved in are at least as well off as the whites who moved out, and sometimes better off. It also is nationally known for new middle-class areas that primarily attract blacks, such as Lake Arbor.

Tina Badaczewski, who is white, said whites began moving out of Kettering in the mid-1970s. She said she stayed because she likes the neighborhood and, aside from race, little changed.

"The people who have come in seem to have the same values, the same wants and needs as the people when we moved in 18 years ago," said Badaczewski, president of the Kettering Civic Federation.

Suburban neighborhoods such as Kettering and Lake Arbor, populated with entrepreneurs, judges, teachers and government managers, have been hailed as proof that blacks are climbing the economic ladder. Underneath the pride, though, lies uneasiness that segregated patterns persist.

"Whites do not participate in sports except soccer," said Paul Price, the black president of the Kettering Homeowners' Association. "That's a sad commentary. It appears that whites are sending their children to Bowie for sports."

"Laurel is distinctly white, Bowie is distinctly white, Lake Arbor is distinctly black," said county demographer Phil Taylor, who moved to Lake Arbor from Kettering. "When you look at it overall, yes, we have 51 percent black {in the county}. When you look at the neighborhood level, you find clear distinctions in terms of race."

Census figures for Prince George's County and the rest of the area appear to underscore academics' contention that there is a "tipping point" at which whites believe too many minorities have moved into a neighborhood and start to leave.

The census tracts that were more than 80 percent white in 1980 generally gained white residents during the decade, while most acquired minority residents as well. But nearly all the census tracts that were less than 80 percent white in 1980 lost more white residents than they gained during the decade, echoing classic patterns of white flight.

"That says to me that whites are still seeking a high comfort level and seeking it in high numbers of white neighbors," said University of Maryland sociologist Bart Landry, author of "The New Black Middle Class." "The residential segregation that continues into the '90s is a result of white choices and white attitudes."

Researchers say whites seldom are willing to move into mainly minority neighborhoods, while blacks -- although not wanting to be the first on the block -- will settle in mainly white areas.

A different type of diversity is transforming north Potomac. Drawn by the reputation of the Montgomery County school system and by new brick colonials off winding roads, newcomers more than tripled the community's population in the past decade. It is now, according to the Census Bureau, 17 percent Asian, up from less than 7 percent in 1980, a change that residents say has been free of racial tension.

"People get along well," said Harry Fang, who moved to Dufief Mill Estates two years ago, partly to get away from anti-Asian graffiti painted on his fence and car windshield when he lived in Rockville.

Researchers say that Asians often find easier acceptance in suburban white neighborhoods than blacks. "Personally, I think there's a connotation of an Oriental family being a nuclear family -- not wild parties or sloppiness," said Levi, describing attitudes she thinks prevail among her white neighbors.

Cultural acceptance works both ways. Some first-generation Asians are putting aside traditional strictures against seeming pushy and are joining in that quintessential American activity, volunteer work.

"In our culture," said Taiwan-born Jeffrey Wu, "you don't come out and say, 'I can do this.' "

Two years ago, Wu was the only Asian delegate to the 100-member county PTA council. Now, he said, there are several others. There was one Asian on the PTA board at Stone Mill Elementary School, the neighborhood school, this year. Next year, there will be three.

Relations are more strained in Buckingham, an Arlington neighborhood of garden apartments and small houses that now is 40 percent Hispanic, up from 11 percent a decade ago. The area has attracted Bolivians, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, many of whom work in low-skill hotel or restaurant jobs that require little English.

Buckingham is no Mount Pleasant, the District neighborhood where tensions flared into violence this spring after a Hispanic man was shot by a black police officer. But there are some of the same issues: Jeanette Evans, the deli manager at Glebe Market, said some older white customers complain about young Hispanics who lounge out front drinking beer.

"They see the drinking and all, and they get scared," she said.

Most of Buckingham's Hispanics do not fit that category, but the stereotype persists. When Jorge Marroquin is introduced to a reporter, the first thing he points out about himself is that he is not one of the parking-lot drinkers. Guatemalan-born Marroquin and his wife were among two dozen Spanish speakers who graduated recently from an evening English program at the neighborhood elementary school, Barrett.

Like many Central American immigrants, Marroquin and his wife fled Guatemala because of violence, leaving with their three children 18 months ago after his brother was murdered because of his human rights activities. They settled near his wife's parents. A factory supervisor and accounting teacher in Guatemala, Marroquin works as a driver for the Pan American Health Organization.

The couple's children, who play Nintendo and have "American friends," Marroquin said, want to stay. Their parents are torn: They dream of going home someday, but "I like it here," Marroquin said. "I have a good job and a very good future for my daughters and for my son."

Demographers say Hispanics, among the poorest and most recent of the area's immigrants, may simply be repeating the pattern of other immigrant groups, who bunch together when they arrive and spread out as they grow more prosperous.

One neighborhood that appears to encapsulate the area's racial trends is the area near Weyanoke Elementary School in Fairfax County, just east of Annandale. A decade ago, the census tract around the school was 80 percent white. Now it is less than 60 percent white, with the rest evenly split among blacks, Asians and Hispanics.

The diversity has had a big impact at Weyanoke Elementary School, whose enrollment became more than 50 percent minority for the first time this year. Lee Padgett, the school's principal for eight years, took Spanish lessons to communicate with students. When he retired this spring, he was replaced by Marta Guzman, who speaks Spanish.

The school draws a dwindling number of students from Lincolnia Park, a mainly white subdivision where many older families no longer have children in the schools, and a growing number from middle- and low-income apartments nearby, which are occupied mainly by Hispanics, blacks, Asians and immigrants from Afghanistan, Kuwait and other Muslim countries. The two communities rarely meet outside the schoolyard, though.

"Mostly what I've noticed is the grocery store -- the neat things that turn up, Spanish newspapers, all kinds of interesting chocolates, tofu," said Kathryn Chevalier, who has lived in Lincolnia Park since 1974.

"That's a whole separate community . . . a whole different world," Pat Greaux, whose family lives in a mainly minority apartment building, said of the Lincolnia Park neighborhood.

Amid the explosive growth of minorities throughout the area, a few areas became majority white, among them a chunk of Capitol Hill east of Union Station, where well-off whites bought town houses and rehabilitated condominiums that had been occupied by black renters.

Maureen Ormond recalled an incident several years ago, during a debate over a McDonald's proposed for Union Station, that illustrated how her neighborhood has become different from nearby poorer areas.

"Everybody in my neighborhood was up in arms about parking and whether they would have biodegradable wrappers," Ormond said. "People in those {other} neighborhoods wanted it. They wanted someplace to eat, and their kids wanted jobs."

How This Project Was Done

To examine racial and ethnic changes in the Washington area, The Washington Post conducted a computer analysis of census tract data from the censuses of 1980 and 1990.

A census tract is a geographic area that can range in size from a few adjacent blocks in densely populated cities to several square miles in sparsely populated areas. Census tracts contain an average of 5,000 people. Tract boundaries may encompass more than one neighborhood but are frequently used by demographers to examine changes in neighborhood composition.

A substantial number of census tract boundaries were changed from 1980 to 1990 to split up fast-growing tracts and combine those that lost population. For this study, all 1990 tract data was recomputed by Claritas Corp., of Alexandria, to reflect 1980 tract geography. That was done to ensure that any changes in population were not simply a result of changes in tract geography from 1980 to 1990. The reconstituted tract data then was analyzed by The Post.

In 1980, there were 895 census tracts in greater Washington, an area that consists of the District of Columbia; Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Falls Church, Alexandria, Fairfax, Manassas and Manassas Park in Virginia; and Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties in Maryland.

For purposes of this report, whites, blacks and Asians do not include people of Hispanic origin. Hispanics may be of any race.

The research staff of Claritas Corp., senior polling analyst Sharon Warden and staff researcher Bridget Roeber of The Post, and Robert E. Griffiths, information resources director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, contributed to this project.